Following spring practice, first-year East Carolina Head Coach Scott Montgomery and his staff indicated that the quarterback battle between Phillip Nelson and Kurt Benkert would be extended into preseason camp.
Shortly thereafter, Benkert surprised some—at least outside of the Pirates’ program—when he opted to take advantage of the graduate transfer rule and join former ECU head coach Ruffin McNeill at UVA.
Nelson, who has demonstrated excellent leadership qualities and developed a tremendous rapport with his teammates, was publicly named the starter as the team headed into summer workouts.
While there wasn’t any doubt about Nelson’s ability to direct the ECU offense, who would be the Pirates’ back-up signal-caller should the former Minnesota starter go down?
When it appeared Benkert and Nelson would be back for the 2016 campaign, last year’s part-time starter Blake Kemp elected to return to his home state of Arizona and conclude his career with Northern Arizon University.
Fortunately, new ECU offensive coordinator Tony Petersen had a relationship with Gardner Minshew from when he had recruited him during his time at Louisiana Tech.
Minshew, a Mississippi native who threw for more than 11,000 yards and 105 touchdowns during a standout prep career, signed with the Troy Trojans out of high school in February of 2015.
However, the quarterback quickly decided to part ways with the Sun Belt school and enrolled at Northwest Mississippi Junior College where he helped guide the program to a national title last season.
The 6’2”, 215-pounder started all 12 games while throwing for nearly 3,300 yards and 28 scores (compared to just 5 interceptions). In the national title game, he produced an eye-opening 421 yards and 5 touchdowns.
The Pirates produced an offer and Minshew opted to take advantage of the opportunity rather than returning for his second season at NW Mississippi.
With an August entry into the ECU program, the successful pro-style quarterback would have a steep learning curve in terms of learning the playbook and making the transition to the Division I level.
After experiencing some struggles early in camp, Minshew quickly adapted and began executing the playbook with confidence.
Following the first scrimmage—during which he completed 15 of 22 passes for 196 yards, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tony Petersen was very excited with his young QB’s performance and development.
“"I feel like I've got 2 quarterbacks that I can win games with and then I got the bonus. I got James (Summers) there. James has to have his type of plays. We feel like we have two legitimate quarterbacks that can play the entire game and then you add him (James Summers) in and it's nice to have."
To say Petersen is glad he extended an offer to Minshew is probably an understatement.
"Gardner's doing a great job. For a guy that wasn't here in the spring, you would think that he's already been here for a year the way he's playing right now and making decisions."
First-year ECU head coach Scottie Montgomery is also very pleased with his current quarterback situation.
Shortly after scrimmage one, Coach Mo said, "We're getting a lot of confidence out of our number 2 quarterback position. He's coming on strong."
Then, following Tuesday’s practice, the new Pirates’ football boss had this to say regarding his quarterbacks.
"We're pretty confident. We've been blessed. We've been able to get Gardner Minshew in. Reid has had a great camp. James gives us an ability to do a lot of things, but the biggest exclamation point behind him (Nelson) would have to be Gardner. He is a guy that knows our entire offense. He's ran it like he's been here for a couple of years now, but he's a gym rat--an office rat if you will--and we are happy to have him."
Minshew was 6-for-14 for 140 yards in Saturday’s second scrimmage of fall practice, but there were multiple drops that make those numbers deceiving.
While some were understandably skeptical about the quarterback position after Benkert’s transfer, the position is not a source of concern but rather a strength for East Carolina.